National Book Award finalist Jean Thompson doesn’t so much write characters as channel the inner sanctums of your friends and neighbors. She launches The Year We Left Home from a 1970s small-town Iowa Lutheran wedding and follows the lives of key attendees over a three-decade span. In this story of insiders and outsiders, she chronicles the drama of America’s generations via the land of quiet cornfields and dried-up storefronts.
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You paint Norwegian rural Iowa so perfectly. Where are you from originally?
Chicago. I have lived other places, but I have spent most of my life in Illinois.
Seriously? Because you nailed it.
Really. Iowa is kind of a stand-in for Illinois for me. I’m not even entirely sure why I chose it. I could certainly write about farm life right here, but I like to have a little bit of distance between me and what I’m writing about. I also had this notion of people with a specific ethnic background. I chose Norwegian Lutherans. They seem to fit better in Iowa.
So how did you catch this vibe so perfectly?
I went to a wedding in Story City [Iowa] way back in the ’70s. But it had nothing to do with these people in the book. It interested me that there was this dual celebration where the Lutherans had the alcohol-free reception in the church basement and then the party moved to the VFW. There was kind of a Norm-and-Martha couple, but everything else I invented—including the state of Iowa.
Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view. What holds them all together?
I was trying to go big, I guess. I was trying to say something about what it means to belong to different groups: a family or a community or, by implication, a country. And what does it mean when you’re somehow outside of that?
All of these characters are positioned in some kind of a continuum. You have the very traditional older generation—the Norm and Martha people, the most stolid and unquestioning ones. Ryan [the primary character] is the guy at midpoint, who as a very young person thinks he’s going to be a world-beater. “I’m going to reinvent myself and strike out on my own!” … And then you have somebody like Chip [the Vietnam vet], who is the ultimate outsider, who has never fit anywhere. But he comes back home and says, “Hey, I live here, too! I live in this country, and I’m part of this family, whether you like it or not.”
That’s what I see in some aspects of American life—in groups and out groups. Every character holds some aspect of this idea.
There’s only one character that really “belongs.”
Anita is a very mainstream person who’s been rewarded in many conventional ways. I probably like her better than many readers would. She suffers through some unexpected reversals and learns to make the most of them. She’s still the high school prom queen by the end; she’s just changed her M.O. a bit.
Everyone in the book seems to be an outsider at some point in time. Did you write it to give comfort to readers who feel that way?
We all have our moments of isolation and alienation, and anyway I don’t know if I’m a writer who’s famous for giving comfort. Sort of like the opposite. In fact, this is one of the more feel-good books of my oeuvre.
Statistically, most of us lead normal lives. It’s hard to reinvent yourself entirely. I don’t think there are many characters in the book who escape that gravitational pull.
Who is your favorite character?
I kind of like Chip because he’s so off the wall and so difficult. And unpredictable. He’s all over the map. Geographically, there are some characters who never do leave home…I wanted one character who ranged the hemisphere. He’s damaged from PTSD or drugs, who knows—one of those guys you see out on the sidewalk having animated conversations with himself. My feeling was that he was not doing very well when he elected to come back home. There’s some mystery to him. The shooting scene with Chip? It’s a little Quentin Tarantino. He can do anything. It’s fun having a character like that.
David Sedaris is a fan of your work.
He’s extremely generous to other writers. I was just the recipient of that for reasons I do not know. Do I write like him or does he write like me? No. There are just writers whose books he also promotes when he tours. If that isn’t a wonderful thing.
What’s next for you?
I never know, honestly. There’s always a little breathing space after you finish a book where you look around and ask, “What would amuse me next?” And because I was pleased with this book, and I think other people will be pleased with it, of course I will wonder if I’m going to blow it next time. [Laughs] You just have to exorcise the ghost of the last book from your mind first.